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Wed Jul 30 17:13:10 SAST 2014

Newspaper criticised for publishing map of gun owners

Sapa-AP | 27 December, 2012 06:270 Comments

Image by: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

A newspaper's publication of the names and addresses of handgun permit holders in two New York counties has sparked online discussions - and a healthy dose of outrage.

The Journal News, a Gannett Co. newspaper covering three counties in the Hudson Valley north of New York City and operating the website lohud.com, posted a story Sunday detailing a public-records request it filed to obtain the information.

The 1,800-word story headlined, "The gun owner next door: What you don't know about the weapons in your neighbourhood," said the information was sought after the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, about 50 miles (80.46 kilometres) northeast of the paper's headquarters in White Plains. A gunman killed his mother, drove to an elementary school and massacred 20 first-graders and six adults, then shot himself. All the weapons used were legally owned by his mother.

The Journal News story includes comments from both sides of the gun-rights debate and presents the data as answering concerns of those who would like to know whether there are guns in their neighbourhood. It reports that about 44 000 people in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties are licensed to own a handgun and that rifles and shotguns can be purchased without a permit.

It was accompanied online by maps of the results for Westchester and Rockland counties; similar details had not yet been provided by Putnam County. A reader clicking on the maps can see the name and address of each pistol or revolver permit holder. Accompanying text states that inclusion does not necessarily mean that an individual owns a weapon, just who obtained a license.

By Wednesday afternoon, the maps had been shared about 30,000 times on Facebook and other social media.

Most online comments have criticised the publication of the data, and many suggest it puts the permit holders in danger because criminals have a guide to places they can steal guns. Others maintain it tells criminals who does not have a gun and may be easier to victimise, or where to find law enforcement figures against whom they might hold a grudge.

Some responded by publicising the home addresses and phone numbers of the reporter who wrote the piece, along with other journalists at the paper and even senior executives of Gannett. Many echoed the idea that publicising gun permit holders' names is tantamount to accusing them of doing something wrong, comparing the move to publishing lists of registered sex offenders.

The Journal News is standing behind the project. It said in the story that it published a similar list in 2006.

"Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular," Janet Hasson, president and publisher of The Journal News Media Group, said in an emailed statement. "We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings."

Roy Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank, said publishing the data was "too indiscriminate."

He, too, compared the maps to similar efforts involving sex-offender registries or lists of those arrested for driving under the influence, noting that such a move is usually done to indicate a serious problem that requires a neighbour or parent to maintain vigilance.

"You get the connotation that somehow there's something essentially wrong with this behaviour," he said of the gun permit database.

"My predisposition is to support the journalism," Clark said. "I want to be persuaded that this story or this practise has some higher social purpose, but I can't find it."

Also common among the comments on the lohud.com were suggestions about suing the paper for violating permit-holders' privacy rights. Such a move would likely be unsuccessful.

"The media has no liability for publishing public information," said Edward Rudofsky, a First Amendment attorney at Zane and Rudofsky in New York. The issue does present a clash between First and Second amendment rights, he said, but in general, the law protects publishing public information unless the intent was to harm someone.

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